Recalling the Caliphate was published in English towards the end of 2014. A few months before its publication, a caliphate had been proclaimed in the borderlands of what had been two Baathist states for almost forty years. At the time of writing, the territory of this self-styled caliphate has shrunk, its leadership has relocated, the rule of the Baathist-takfiri warlords seems to be receding in Iraq and Syria.
The book had been planned and written in fits and starts over a number of years. The coincidence of proclamation of a caliphate and publication of Recalling the Caliphate was bound to raise expectations among some readers that the book was a response to these events. The publication of Turkish translation gives me an opportunity to dampen these expectations and clarify the purpose of the book.
Recalling the Caliphate is not a book about Turkey or Iran, let alone the warlords of the upper Euphrates. It is not about political ambitions and schemes that are perhaps being concocted in capitals like Jakarta, Abuja, Islamabad, or Riyadh. It is not about the AK party in Ankara or the government in Teheran. Recalling the Caliphate was not written to endorse a specific political programme or detail what the content or policy of any such programme or organisation should be. The insistence that a book about matters Islamicate should confine itself to the existing, taken-for-granted state of affairs is precisely one of the demands that Recalling the Caliphate was written to reject. The book belongs more to the genre of political theory rather than policy-making. Recalling the Caliphate is not a think tank report or a manifesto; rather it is a decolonial investigation into the way in which the appearance of a Muslim political identity impacts on the existing world order.
This, of course, will disappoint those readers who want something concrete, those whose understanding of the political is fully occupied by actual politics of the day. The demand for a book that discusses the politics of Muslimistan in relationship to existing parties, policies and polities is easily met; the internet is awash with such discussions. From rantings of the alt. right to scholastic inquiries, there is no dearth of material on the current state of affairs that ensare, confound and confront Muslims. The political, or even politics, is not exhausted by analysis of who is up and who is down, which group is in power and which is not; it is not a game of musical chairs played to the same old tune. The political is also about how we change the tune; it is about world-making.
The pre-occupation with the immediate play of policies, parties and polities in Muslimistan prevents us from understanding the development of forces and processes that are not on the horizon of everyday statecraft and punditry. One of the major arguments in Recalling the Caliphate is that the emergence of a global Muslimness is disruptive of the existing world order, not only in terms of security or culturally, but also philosophically. The appearance of various political actions in the key of Islam occur against the background of a world order based on colonial-racial logics, a world-order in which White rule continues to be institutionalised and defended. One way of describing White rule is in terms of what Gramsci would have described as a historic bloc, that is, a mix of structural and superstructural elements which bound social relations into a particular formation. White rule is not an ethnographic but a political category. It is centred on not on an ethnicity as such, but on ethnogenesis. White rule refers to the way in which the prevailing sense of Europeaness is bound up with a dense interplay between economic, cultural and conceptual assemblages in which Whiteness is naturalized as the essence of being human. White rule refers not to individuals or groups, but rather a specific system of global domination on behalf of Europeaness (not necessarily Europeans).
The book was written before the white supremacist tendency as represented by the election of Trump and vote for Britain to leave the European Union came to the fore. However, the decolonial impetus of the book was unambiguously directed at the challenge to white rule. It should be a matter of some concern that white supremacy is in its present conjuncture articulated in relation to the exercise and institutionalisation of Islamophobia. Islamophobia is not merely the negative representation of Muslims or Islam or both. Islamophobia is a sustained attempt to regulate and discipline Muslimness by reference to a Westernising horizon; it is an attempt to deny Muslim autonomy.
The election of Trump and way it has brought explicit and unreconstructed Islamophobes to the centre of US policy-making should help demonstrate, even to the most obtuse, that the disciplining of Muslimness is not only a marginal matter that affects Muslim minorities, but that the liberal-democratic order is being reconfigured on the backs of Muslim bodies. As such it will not only affect Muslims but as a chain of metaphorical links in Trump’s various pronouncements makes clear: Mexicans, Blacks, Chinese are all bound together. In the fevered imagination of white supremacists, the threat from Islam looms large.
Why should Muslims become the metaphors for all that Eurocentrism wants to expunge? Why should how Muslims bury their dead, or dress or eat be so contested by white supremacists? Part of the answer must be that the growth of a global Muslim consciousness demonstrates the contingency of white rule. The challenge to Eurocentrism is increasingly articulated by a sense of transnational unfolding Muslim collective identity. This identity is forged through the complex arrangement of various capillary actions in many parts of the world through which the demand for Muslim autonomy is exercised. The argument that Recalling the Caliphate makes is in a world where a Muslim subject position has emerged; there are no institutional frameworks or structures to house it. Thus Muslims face the challenge of being unrepresented and unrepresentative in the current system of global white rule.
It is not the case that Islam is the only form of resistance to White entitlement and privilege, but rather, it has become one of the main resources by which White rule is being challenged in many parts of the world. This, of course, does not mean that all or most Muslims are necessarily or continuously or courageously involved in challenging White rule in its myriad forms. There is no doubt that there are many Muslims who support and identify with White rule, or aspects of it, or fail to see it as anything other than the natural order of things. Some Muslims confronted with enormity and depth and reach of White rule may contend that there is no advantage in challenging it; they may even believe, that White rule is in many ways better than any possible alternative. They may convince themselves and try and convince others that living under conditions of white rule is not only compatible with Islam, but is necessary for Islam. There are other Muslims who, while proclaiming their rejection of white rule in most strident and violent terms, are able to combine these proclamations with acts of horrifying brutality which undermine Muslim understanding of Islam.
The existence of Muslims who are complicit with White rule does not refute the argument that at its most relevant and hopeful, Islamism involves decolonisation of white rule. This decolonization is not only economic or militarily or cultural, but also has an epistemological dimension. Neo-conservatives historians and pundits highlight the epistemological arm of white rule, not by producing studies that explicitly praise the cruelties and iniquities of Western colonial enterprise, but rather by promoting books, blogs and documentaries which erase the relational and comparative from their analysis. Eurocentrism is perpetuated and maintained not only by crude propaganda, but also by epistemic stealth. By confusing the way things which are taken for granted and considered to natural and unremarkable with the way things ultimately are, Eurocentrism fundamentally erases history by institutionalising an essentialism in the service of its universal claims. Once history is erased, we become oblivious to the play of contingency that brought us to this set of arrangements that we take for granted. We abandon the possibility of understanding our place in the world and at the same time give up on our ability to do justice , since justice requires us to imagine a better world and compels us to recognise that things could have been different from what they are now. It is this gap that emerges between what is and what should be that a call to justice seeks to close.
To the extent that there are different language games by which the call to justice can be made as a testimony to the irreducible heterogeneity of the world, it is also what those who speak only Westernese find so perplexing. Westernese is the language game or discourse that is dominant in the world; it presents itself as being universal, secular and individualistic. It has been successful in creating a subject position which can be found in most parts of the world and which is occupied by a significant number of people who consider themselves to be the embodiment of the claims of Westernese. That is, they comport themselves as being liberal in attitude and habits of mind, universal in their outlook and orientation and secular, or at least sceptical, about claims made for other language games other than that of Westernese.
In the pages of Recalling the Caliphate, I focus on the ways in which the Islamicate is trapped in Westernese. The idea of the caliphate, at its best and empowering, captures the drive to escape Westernese and liberate the Islamicate. It is important to note that the reason I am interested in the caliphate is precisely because it is not unambiguously a canonical category that can be legitimated without contestation. The historical record of the caliphate demonstrates the “crooked timber of humanity”. The caliphate has repeatedly been compromised, and its humiliations and betrayals reveal it to be not so much an Islamic but Islamicate institution par excellence. The caliphate is a recognition of the necessity of the political for the perpetuation of Islam, and the protection of Muslims must in large part be a political act rather than one of piety.
One of the most challenging aspects of Islamism is that it is a relationship to Islam. There is an expectation, especially strong among some Muslims, that where Islamists have managed to achieve power, they have failed to escape the corruptions of power. The conclusion that such an observation implies is that Islamists should confine themselves to being permanent critics of power rather than wielders of power. Certainly, such a sentiment has many honourable antecedents among Muslim thinkers of the past. Throughout the book, there is an insistence that the cultivation of the Islamicate way of life cannot simply rest on algorithms and technocratic protocols. The quest for a perfect human or perfect society is not only forlorn, but undermines for Muslims the possibility of the Islamicate. The idea of perfection relies either on rational foundations, in other words, a society that is governed by reason, that will eliminate disagreement and conflict and thus usher a harmonious union; or it can be based on the idea that many Muslims hold, that a society governed by Islam would eliminate the cause of conflict as disagreements could be resolved by an appeal to the canon of Islam. Such a position, often sincerely held, sees conflicts between Muslims as arising from one group of Muslims not properly understanding Islam. The cause of conflict, however, is not always misunderstanding or ignorance, conflicts can arise because two parties presented with the same evidence can come to different conclusions. The existence of different madhabs is a testimony to the possibility of different conclusions being drawn from a similar evidentiary base.
Disputes, disagreements and discord arise from the way in which identity is relational and contrastive. That is, identity rests on difference, and the erosion of difference can lead to the dissolution of a particular form of identification. The attempt to foreclose spaces of disruption means de-politicization and erasure of ethical possibilities. In other words, antagonism is constitutive of identity, it is not merely, the product of ignorance or malevolence. The challenge is not to erase antagonism but to domesticate it sufficiently to allow it to generate a grammar; that is, politics is about mastering the political. In the Western plutocracies, the domestication of the political took the form of a grammar that developed in a series of revolutionary upheavals in the North Atlantic (England, America, France and Haiti) that now labours under the signifier of democracy. For Muslims, a similar domestication of the political took the form of the development of a political grammar in which an independent legal order acted to temper the excess of the powerful. The Shariah system was not just a series of rules, but also a system of courts and scholars independent of government. The European colonial enterprise was to a large degree responsible for dismantling or marginalising the Islamicate political grammar. The effect of this development was that Muslim demands for autonomy could not be expressed.
In my work, I argue that the identity of Islamism is based not on its content as such, but on the way in which those contents are inserted into a series of contrasts. Islamism emerges in contrast to Kemalism. Kemalism is not merely the programme of transformations initiated by Mustafa Kemal and his followers in a country devastated by a decade of existential struggles, invasions, and occupations, rather, Kemalism was a discourse that sought to hollow out the Islamicate world system. The logic of Kemalism as it structured the emergent polities of Muslimistan in the wake of the unravelling of Europe’s formal empires, of course, had distinct local and temporal variations. This involved the emphasis on the construction of polities in which ethnicity became the centrepiece of nationality; this included the marginalisation of independent Islamicate institutions’ role in public life. The opposition between Kemalism and Islamism is not objective but constitutive.2 The tropes and themes that circulate within the discourse of Kemalism do not define it, rather it is how these tropes and themes are contrasted and given meaning through those contrasts that is the key. It is a caricature to believe that particular issues or policies have an intrinsic nature that links them irrecoverably with one worldview or another. For example, vegetarianism can be articulated as a component of pacifism or National Socialism; it does not have an intrinsic meaning outside its various articulations. To suggest that there is an overlap between elements of one discourse and another is to forget that ‘denotation is the last connotation’ (Barthes, . To argue that Islamists and Kemalists are the same because they use similar terms, tones and practice the same policies is not only a problem of empirical over-statement, but also conceptual under-theorization. The identity or meaning of any policy or strategic ploy is a matter of articulation not the uncovering of an essence; it is to be understood grammatically. This, of course, does not mean that policies followed by political actors cannot be grammatically wrong or fail. It could be argued that one of the clear challenges that Muslims face in the current conjuncture is the failure of Kemalist hegemony and inability to establish an Islamist historic bloc. The Syrian civil war represents one of the most tragic manifestations of this failure. The conflict which began as a dispute between those who opposed the Baathist regime and those who supported was transformed by a series of manoeuvres and missteps into a conflict between Shia and Sunni. The Iranian government erred by allowing the opposition to Assad to be seen as distinct from the series which saw the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ as being a conflict between absolutism and accountability. Such failures of policy making can always arise, they show the difficulties of a geostrategic situation that Islamists face with all the main powers involved in the subjugation of some group of Muslims and that the cost of any alliance can only be bought at the expense of a distinct Muslim population (Sayyid, 2015: xxviii-xxx)
Recalling the Caliphate is an investigation into obstacles that curtail Muslim demands for autonomy. Its analysis of the caliphate is not as history, but as a surface of inscription for the exercise of Muslim agency. There is an urgent need for the new grammar of the Islamicate; Recalling the Caliphate is a reflection on that necessity. Reflecting on the Islamicate requires the abandonment of Eurocentrism not only geopolitically or culturally but also philosophically. It is only by decolonizing Eurocentrism in all its various and complex manifestations that space can be created in which new grammar of the Islamicate can emerge. One way of describing a decolonial analysis of the Islamicate is to call it Critical Muslim Studies.3 Recalling the Caliphate is then a book about Critical Muslim Studies.
Barthes, R. (1973) Mythologies, Selected and translated from the French by Annette Lavers. London: Paladin.
Editorial Board (2015) “ReOrient: A Forum For Critical Muslim Studies”, ReOrient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, Autumn.
Sayyid, S (2015) A Fundamental Fear, 3rd edition, London: Zed.
 This is an amended English version of the preface to the Turkish translation of Recalling the Caliphate. I would like to thank Uzma Jamil for assistance in the preparation of this version.
 For fuller analysis of the role of Kemalism as hegemonic discourse that transcends the particularity of the post-Ottoman experience in Turkey see Sayyid, 2015: 52-83.
 For further elaboration of Critical Muslim Studies see the opening statement of ReOrient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies (2015: 5-10).